STEPPING UP: My take — Out with Sterling, in with Sam

What May has taught us about sporting culture

By DAVID CUCCHIARA

Washington Daily News

 

There was a time when racism and bigotry seeped so deeply into the cracked foundation of sporting culture, and society as a whole, that it went relatively uncontested. Until Jackie Robinson, baseball was divided between Major and Negro League, and basketball was reserved exclusively for white folk.

We’ve come a long way since Jackie, Earl Lloyd and Willie O’Ree, who broke the color barrier in hockey. Over the last 60 years, we’ve become a little more accepting while simultaneously becoming more diverse.

This month, we witnessed two momentous and unprecedented social steps in the world of sports. Clippers owner, soon to be former owner, Donald Sterling, 80, was exiled from all NBA operations after a recorded phone conversation, involving numerous bigoted racial comments, was revealed by his now ex-girlfriend. If this issue went to court, the evidence would likely have been expunged for a variety or reasons, including his right to privacy being violated and unknowingly being recorded.

But that wasn’t the point. It didn’t matter how the tapes were obtained. It only mattered what was said on those tapes. Social righteousness trumped legal principles and the majority of America had no problem disregarding Sterling’s rights being violated. It’s a simple concept, but a significant one in nature.

Then, just days after the tapes surfaced, the NFL Draft kicked off. It was business as usual, except for one undersized Missouri linebacker expected to go in the late rounds.

Soon, the fifth round turned to the sixth and the sixth the seventh, but with the 249th overall pick in the final round, the St. Louis Rams selected Michael Sam. The significance, as we all know by now, was that Sam became the first openly gay football player to join the NFL ranks (although, he still has to make the team this offseason). How fitting just days after the NBA ousted Sterling.

Race and sexuality are separate entities, no doubt, but both have made substantial strides regarding tolerance in sports over the last decade. Both Sterling and Sam tested society on race and sexuality. Society passed.

To say racism and hatred no longer exist in sports would be ignorant. In fact, Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones was suspended by the team for unruly tweets posted in response to Sam being drafted, specifically regarding the linebacker kissing his boyfriend on national television. Again, Jones could have argued his First Amendment right, but in the end, like Sterling, his organization, his teammates and society as a whole seemed only to care about what was said and not his freedom of speech.

We’ve never been closer to universal acceptance in sports. We sit readily on the precipice and soon, once the older generation is gone and our children join the workforce, these conversations hopefully will no longer be needed.

It’s already noticeable at the high school level. Again, to say racism and intolerance no longer exist in high school sports would be incorrect, but on the surface, it’s virtually invisible.

It’s fair to say sports offers an escape, a vehicle for neutrality of sorts, where when coaches, players, fans and officials assemble to watch a baseball game, all they truly care about is the final score. Sports act as a vacuum. Throw in any race, gender, sexuality you like, and in the end, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. Once fans and players step away from the playing field, however, prejudice is all too familiar.

Sportsmanship and tolerance go hand-in-hand and Washington’s gritty, hard-fought fourth-round soccer match against Carrboro offered the perfect paradigm to show how far we’ve come.

After about 72 minutes of the Jaguars and Pam Pack pushing, shoving, fouling, slide tackling and taunting each other, and the fans on both sides responding by yelling at the players for rough play and the officials for not calling what they deemed a foul, Christian Heggie, Class 2-A’s leading scorer with 55 goals, went down with a nasty knee injury.

Eight minutes later, the ref blew the whistle and the game was over. Washington won 1-0. In an act of sportsmanship that gave me goose bumps, Jaguars players, who clearly were not pleased with the final result or Washington’s aggressive (but necessary) play, walked over to Heggie on the sideline – who sat there immobile and upset with an icepack on her knee – and respectively shook her hand, uttering the customary “good game.”

They knew it was the right thing to do, so they did it. The NBA commissioner knew banning Sterling was the right thing to do, so he did it. And the St. Louis Rams knew drafting Michael Sam benefitted their team on defense, so they did it.

The future is bright for professional sports, as it’s only a matter of time until the current and morally correct high school sports values work their way up the ladder to erase intolerance in all forms, once and for all.